History. From Russia to Romania, and Iran to India, the word chai
is the generic word for “tea.” For most of the English-speaking world, however, chai is synonymous with masala chai, a milky black tea that is spiced and sweetened.
When Britain ruled India, the British East India Company encouraged black tea consumption, mainly as a way to wrest control from the Chinese, who held a monopoly on the tea trade. Black tea leaves were not inexpensive, so Indian chai wallahs added spices, milk and sugar to cut costs.
Preparation and steeping methods, as well as the spices used, vary from country to country, and even from household to household, yet the four basic components—tea leaves, sweetener, milk and spices—are what give masala chai its name.
Spices. Assam and gunpowder tea are the most commonly used tea leaves, while cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, peppercorn and cloves are the dominant spices. As it’s a worldwide beverage with myriad interpretations, allspice, fennel, nutmeg, vanilla, lemongrass, tamarind, mace, ajwain, coriander, mint leaves, almonds, saffron, licorice and even chocolate are also used.
While chai started as a hot beverage, it is now also popular as a cold drink and as a basis for many food recipes. Try it in this month’s Recipe for Health: Apple Masala Chai Muesli by chef Annelies Zijderveld.